When diners arrive at Asado Argentinian Grill and Cafe in Orem, they are greeted with an embrace.
“We hug and kiss and we shake hands and we welcome you to our home, and then you will feel, hopefully, what we feel when we go to a neighbor’s house in South America,” said Asado owner Julio Gonzalez, of Uruguay.
A variety of restaurants representing countries from Argentina to Mexico are helping to keep Latino culture alive in Utah County.
Each Latino restaurant in the area offers its own unique take on traditional Mexican, Central American or South American fare, according to Abraham Hernandez, executive director of Centro Hispano.
“If you think you’ve tried one taco shop, you haven’t tried them all. Everyone will have their own spin on it. Each generation will have their own spin,” Hernandez said. “Each taco shop is going to taste different, because even within our own country of origin, it’s still regional, much like the United States.”
Asado, which opened about three years ago, prides itself on being “authentic to the umpteenth degree,” whether guests order cow tongue, beef tripe, blood sausage or even something that isn’t on the menu, according to Gonzalez.
“Asado means grill in South America,” Gonzalez said. “It is our oxygen. We love beef. We love meat.”
Gonzalez said Asado tries “to unify South America into one restaurant.”
“The entire South American region, Peru, Uruguay, Brazil, Argentina, parts of Bolivia and Columbia — we’re trying to cater to as many people as possible,” Gonzalez said.
Lucy Wyssling, of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, said she struggled to find authentic Brazilian cuisine when she moved to Utah about five years ago. One day when she was stuck in traffic on Center Street in Provo, she thought the area would be a great place to open a restaurant.
About a year and a half later, she and her husband found a space in downtown Provo on University Avenue and decided to open Lucy’s Brazilian Kitchen.
“All the recipes that I have is traditional Brazilian cuisine and family recipes from my mother and my grandmother, so I try to keep the authenticity for the Brazilian cuisine, and I try to bring the flavors from Brazil to here,” Wyssling said.
Provo staple El Mexsal combines classic cuisine from Mexico and El Salvador. People from all countries stop in to enjoy the restaurant’s food, especially the pupusas, a Salvadorian special. Some from El Salvador even claim El Mexsal’s pupusas are better than those in their home country, according to restaurant owner Salvador Duarte, of Santa Ana, El Salvador.
“We have more Salvadorian food like tamales, panes con pollo, plantain,” Duarte said. “And for Mexican, we have tacos, burritos, enchiladas, chile relleno. We have seafood, too — cocktail, fish.”
When El Mexsal first started 13 years ago, it brought food to a Latino festival in Provo in hopes of bringing more people into the restaurant. El Mexsal has since become so popular that it has plans to expand in the near future in order to accommodate more diners.
“When they try the first time, they like it and come back and then try another food,” Duarte said.
Asado likewise recently expanded in response to its growth in popularity.
“To South Americans, and I think to most cultures, your food calls you,” Gonzalez said. “You miss it. You desire it.”
Hernandez said the Latino community in Utah County enjoys eating at these restaurants because it transports them back home and brings back memories.
“Just opening and walking through those doors, you’re transported into a different realm, where you hear music, you hear the language, the color palette’s very different, and then of course the food, just the taste and the smell is really warming to remember your own culture, or learning about a new culture as well,” Hernandez said.
For Gonzalez, preparing South American dishes like chaja — a Uruguayan dessert made with meringue, dulce de leche and peaches on yellow cake — at Asado takes him back to devouring a cake with his grandmother when he was 8 years old.
“It is such a joy to watch people eat that because my grandmother used to make that for me all the time,” Gonzalez said.
Diners from Utah County go to Asado “expecting a Latin experience,” according to Gonzalez.
“When we greet a table, we greet them in Spanish first and then in English second, simply because we notice that many, many people here in Utah have been to Latin America, and a lot of them speak Spanish,” Gonzalez said.
Many Utahns who are preparing for or have returned from full-time missions for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Latin America enjoy eating at Utah County’s Latino restaurants.
“We have a lot of missionaries that served in Brazil, that served missions 20 years ago, 30 years ago, people that served a mission five years ago, and we have a lot of missionary reunions in here,” Wyssling said of Lucy’s Brazilian Kitchen. “We do have a lot of Brazilians that live here, too, that come and eat, and they love it, so they like the opportunity to have homemade food in Provo.”
Gonzalez has observed in the last few years kids who used to eat cheeseburgers at Asado are now ordering bone marrow and “all kinds of crazy stuff.”
“Their palates are developing slowly,” Gonzalez said. “That’s really cool to see that, a whole new culture of Utahns from a young age that are coming here repeatedly — two, three times a week — and ordering things that their parents never dreamed about eating.”
Gonzalez said he has also noticed a cuisine change in the Orem and Provo area over the last year as more international restaurants have opened up.
“I think it’s great that we have diversity, and not just the Spanish, but the Brazilians and the Chinese, I think it’s awesome,” Wyssling said. “I think it brings the community together, and I think it’s important because we call each other Americans, but in reality, we are a big melting pot, and I think it’s awesome for the culture, Utah, and the whole United States. I think it’s really good that we come together and support each other.”
Latin America’s culture of welcoming and embracing guests complements the culture in Utah County, according to Gonzalez.
“There’s some patrons that will ask other patrons what they’re eating, and they’ll share their food. I’ve never seen that happen at other restaurants. And then when that patron gets his food, he’ll share it with them,” Gonzalez said. “What a beautiful thing to grow through the culture of food.”